Film Speed & Escaping Noise

Bushwick
View From Home, Brooklyn, 2014.

The above is a shot from my digital camera. At one point of time I had almost given up on 35mm film because of how grainy it was looking even at low ISO’s and how the colors were just not saturated enough.

Ironically I recently came across in a discussion at school was Film Speeds. There was a major difference in film results, specifically in grain and color when I compared my results to others. And for a really long time I thought it was because of the quality of light in India and the color temperature.

But thats not the case. I was facing the same issues even when shooting here in NYC. The reason as it turns out to be is how I’ve been metering film.

Portra 400VC metered at 400. If you notice you'll see heavy grain specially at the bottom part of the image even though the light is perfect. This is not simply grain, its noise due to underexposure.
Portra 400VC metered at 400. If you notice you’ll see heavy grain specially at the bottom part of the image even though the light is perfect. This is not simply grain, its noise due to underexposure.

Most films as it turns out are best shot if metered for slower ISO than the box rating. So for example if you have a roll of film at 400 ISO, you could shoot it at 400 ISO and get low color saturation and high grain OR shoot it at 200 ISO (overexposing by +1 stop) and get higher color saturation and almost no visible grain. I just want to point out, here I’m talking about pure overexposure, not pushing film (we are still developing the film at box speed)

This shot is from the same roll of Portra 400VC and its been overexposed by 1 stop. And even though I expected loss of highlights, the film holds the tones perfectly.
This shot is from the same roll of Portra 400VC and its been overexposed by 1 stop. And even though I expected loss of highlights, the film holds the tones perfectly.

Thanks to the latitude of films, overexposure is not so much of a problem if you’re going up to +2 stops in color. BW is even more resilient with capability of up to +5 (for low ISO BW). Just a note – these tips are only for C41 and BW films, not slides or digital. Also as you go up in ISO on films, latitude will continue to drop.

Now all sounds good and you might be jumping around excited that your results would be better but this ISO reduction poses one serious problem. Color films as such are limited to mostly 400 ISO. There is a single higher speed Portra 800 but other than that they max out at 400. So now because you’re shooting everything at a lower ISO, you’re stuck at 80 ~ 200 ISO for most of the times which means shooting only in daylight.  Question is what should be done in low light situations?

One solution could be buying expensive faster lenses with apertures like f1.2. The other could be pushing films. But there is a trick to it too. Instead of pushing the film and processing it at pushed ISO, if you develop it at still higher ISO, you could get some of the saturation and contrast back. So hypothetically speaking, if you wanted to shoot at night, take Portra 400, shoot it at 800 and develop it at 1600.

I’m yet to try the last push process idea but in theory it should work. When I do I shall post results or if any of you guys are going to do it, send me a email and we can share the result online.

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3 thoughts on “Film Speed & Escaping Noise

  1. I have been disappointed many times too with film grain, not because it’s ugly, but because I can’t seem to make it work to my advantage. Yes, I think grain is beautiful in some shots. Your suggestion and theories make sense to me — I always get clearer and less grainy photos when I shoot with low ISO films or slightly overexpose my shots. Works well with expired films too! And of course, since Manila is almost always bright and sunny, and I prefer shooting in daylight/natural light too, I think it will work well for me.

    Maybe I should try and give it a go one of these days!

  2. I’ve just got some Lomography ISO 800 color that I was trying to figure a strategy for. Your approach might be the ticket, but the light will have to candle strength I think. It’s also 120mm so I really hope this behaves the way my mind is seeing it. I’ll report back with the results or images if they work.

    1. Lomo 800 ISO is a interesting film but its a little unstable as all Lomography films are (other than the earl grey bw). But do come back with the images, would be amazing to see what you’re getting!

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